What's the Alternative?

John Gordon recently wrote a short blog post explaining that he can no longer recommend people make the switch from Windows to macOS when shopping around for a new computer. The reasons he cites are quite valid, from Apple's recent abandoning sprees on software, hardware, and business sense, to the high cost of entry for machines that have arguably mid-range specs. While I can agree that the average person may not be willing to invest a grand or two in hardware before investing even more money in applications that may or may not work as the operating system evolves year over year, it's important to ask one question: what's the alternative?

After months of investigation, I settled on picking up a 2015-era MacBook Pro and replacing OS X — as it was known at the time — with Ubuntu. I've been happy with this decision for the most part and have even gone so far as to contribute updates to drivers that allow people to get better performance out of their Bluetooth radio. I chose the MacBook Pro not because I wanted a quick way to jump back to the safe confines of Apple's ecosystem, but because the alternatives were just not worth the money.

When it comes to buying a computer, a person really needs to consider how they'll be using the machine. Will it be something you're looking at for more than an hour or two a day? Then it simply cannot have a low-resolution screen. Will it be something you'll type on a lot? Then the keyboard needs to match your hands just right. Will it be something you'll carry from place to place? Then it had better have a really good battery, or be light enough that carrying the ridiculously bulky charging adapter is slightly more bearable. Then there's the problem of the hideously awful touchpads that seem to exist on every notebook not designed in Cupertino and manufactured in China. I spent months looking for a good-quality notebook that met these 4 criteria and a few other details and always came away disappointed.

You can have a good keyboard or a good screen, not both. You can have decent expandability or good battery life, not both. You can have a fast processor or a thin formfactor, not both. Buying just about any product will require a person to prioritise certain features, but one expects the decision to be less painful the higher up you go in the product line.

The HP Spectre 13 x360 came very close to what I was looking for in terms of hardware, but was limited by 8GB of RAM and a keyboard that just didn't feel very good. Lenovo's T450s was also close, as it allowed for hardware swapping along with a mostly-acceptable battery life and decently-comfortable keyboard, but was limited by the screen's awful pixellation and colour fade.

As a person who looks at a glowing screen for 10+ hours a day and interacts with the keyboard almost exclusively1, any machine that cannot offer both solid typing and crisp text2 simply cannot become a tool I rely on.

So what are the options?

Dell does have some decent machines, yes. The screen's aren't all that great, and the keyboards feel cheap, but they'll do. The same can be said for HP, Lenovo, Mouse, and System76. Nothing from any Japanese manufacturer is even worth mentioning anymore, as it's all lowest-quality-highest-price plastic crap. Even Sony, once the pinnacle of amazing-screens everywhere, is barely worth a cursory glance at an electronics shop. Try as I might, there just hasn't been a compelling notebook from any manufacturer in the last five years — if not longer — that comes anywhere near what a MacBook Pro can offer in terms of screen quality, keyboard usability, battery longevity, and overall build quality. Yes, a person needs to resign themselves to the fact that the unit is ultimately a non-upgradeable appliance, but it's still the best-made appliance out there. And, if you're willing to go with a store model to save a few hundred dollars, you'll wind up paying the same as you would for a top-of-the-line HP or Dell that comes with an infuriating touchpad that you leave disabled 90% of the time.

When people ask me for advice on what computer they should buy next, I still ask the basic questions. What's the main purpose? How long will it be used for every day3? Who will be the main person using it? And then I make a recommendation. Sometimes it's for a tablet. Sometimes it's for a notebook. And in those instances where somebody is looking for a decent quality notebook, I'll recommend either a MacBook Air or a MacBook Pro … which then has its operating system replaced with whatever the buyer is most comfortable with soon after getting it home.

Ideal? Maybe not. But it's better than the alternatives.


  1. I have not used a mouse in over five years, and I have no plans on ever going back to those horrible things.

  2. Crisp Japanese text. Roman characters are tolerable with awful pixellation some of the time, but it's brutal when trying to read complex kanji consisting of 12 or more strokes.

  3. then multiply this number by at least two

HP's Lost Its Mind

I've bought a lot of Hewlett Packard products over the years and, because of this, have registered a lot of hardware with them. This is something I typically do to ensure I stay on top of recalls, better drivers, and firmware updates for the various devices that might need them. Although the last HP item I had registered was four years ago, I received perhaps two email notifications about updates over the span of eight years. That said, it's been very different since February.

It seems that HP has wanted to keep me appraised of every update for every piece of hardware they've made since the dawn of time … none of which I've purchased. There have been updates for powerful workstations, RAID cards, graphics cards, notebooks only sold in the UK, scanners, printers galore, and even monitors. No PDAs, though. Nothing running WebOS, either. Just the stuff that I have zero interest in purchasing.

Alas, the company has become less relevant to me over the years1, so there's really no need to go through the hassle of trying to unsubscribe. Blocking messages such as this can be done with less than 3 clicks. Bye bye, HP.

Resolution

Ben Brooks recently wrote an interesting blog post where he talked about going from a multi-monitor proponent to comfortable using a single display … even one as small as found on the 13" MacBook Air. This has made me think about my own work preferences and whether they enable or disable my overall efficiency. As it stands I currently use three monitors when working, and they're all put to use. Is this really the best way?

I've been saving up and planning to purchase a new notebook for just over a year now, and have written a few posts about it on this site. One of the things holding me back, aside from adequate funding, has been the screen resolution of the displays that come on today's notebooks. The standard WXGA (1366x768) resolution that has come on almost every notebook for the last four years is something I've scoffed at for a long time. The argument has been that this particular resolution would not allow me to see enough information at a single glance to be truly efficient. While I still stand by my statements that this screen resolution would be insufficient in any long-term notebook, what is it about low screen resolutions that gets under my skin so much?

Perhaps it's the way I use computers?

You're Doing It Wrong

When using applications, I typically run them in windows rather than full screen. This allows me to arrange a bunch of applications around the screen in such a way that I can keep tabs of what's going on in multiple places at once. There are only two exceptions to this rule: Visual Studio .NET runs in full screen mode, and virtual machines that use a GUI 1 will use a full screen (and have applications open in windows all over that screen). It's no wonder that I fell in love with the 1680x1050 resolution offered by my previous HP notebook. There was enough room for everything, and then some.

But does this make me more efficient? Thinking back over the last decade, I think the answer would be a resounding "no". Even while writing this post (using just a single monitor) I've been Alt-Tabbing between Chrome, MetroTwit, and Opera. When writing code I can put a great deal of focus into what I'm doing, but even then I will switch between applications, respond to emails as they come in, and jump around the screen. While I can still focus, I'm not completely focused on the task at hand. There are too many distractions when other applications and their notifications are making themselves known.

So perhaps a smaller screen resolution is perfectly acceptable. Something closer to 1440x900, as found on some of the better notebooks out there, would still display a great amount of information. There's just one little problem as the resolution gets smaller, though:

Microsoft Word | RibbonRibbons in Windows consume a great deal of space, pushing everything of importance down farther and wasting a great deal of space at the top of the screen. Some applications, such as Word, will allow you to close the ribbon, but many will not. What's worse is that a number of applications that have been updated for Windows 7 all make use of an ugly, pixel-robbing ribbon that is used for maybe a few seconds out of every hour but consume screen real estate nonetheless. This is less of an issue in Ubuntu and OS X, but it's one of the reasons I've been so adamant that a 1366x768 resolution would be insufficient. The ribbon in Word consumes 140 pixels, which would leave just 620-odd pixels in height for the workspace, which is further reduced with status bars, other toolbars, rulers, and a plethora of other screen hogs. Yes, I do set my applications to use a minimum of space, but many do not allow it.

Resetting Perspective

Starting from next month, I plan on using my older Acer Aspire One netbook as my primary system for a while. This comes with an absolute minimum of hardware, and a 1024x600 pixel screen. I'll be doing this for a few reasons, but the main ones will be to "reset" my perspective that applications should always run in a window, and that screen resolution is not the only significant element to a notebook. If nothing else, it should help me focus on the task in front of me, and less on the periphery. This alone will likely improve my performance by a good 30%.

In the future, when I do finally have enough saved up to purchase the next notebook, I'll have a bit more appreciation for its screen … even if it is a bit limited.

What If Microsoft Bought HP's Manufacturing Division?

A few days ago I was listening to hypercritical" data-hash="31">hypercritical">#31">HyperCritical #31,and John Siracusa posited a very interesting question about HP's splitting off of its PC division from the point of Microsoft. Considering the number of PC hardware manufacturers posting losses and flooding the market with a number of super-budget devices in a bid to lower their production costs as well as maintain some semblance of profitability, this could make some sense. Hewlett Packard is undoubtedly Microsoft's largest customer and if they aren't interested in the slim margins anymore, why should anyone else be?

The sheer thought nearly blew my mind.

Siracusa argues that with manufacturers continuing on their march towards consolidation, Microsoft begins to lose its position of power in the market place. The last time Microsoft saw this happening to a market they were desperate to be in — namely with MP3 players — they created the Zune. Although late to the game, the Zune was a solid piece of equipment that later went on to become Windows Phone 7.

So what if Microsoft did this again, but earlier? Rather than tacking on PC design and manufacturing to their existing hardware division, though, they would instead buy HP's PC division and produce a premium line of hardware. They would set the standard for all Windows-based machines.

Excluding Vista, an operating system I have little experience with, Windows has gone from being a crash-prone platform full of holes into something that is solid enough to be honestly trusted. Aside from the occasional driver issue, I've seldom had problems with Windows 7. Since SP1, the platform has become even better. What hasn't improved, though, is the hardware available. If Microsoft were to use HP's technical know-how to design, manufacture, and sell machines that rival Apple's own premium offerings, then we might see a fundamental shift in the market towards more reliable and higher quality machines.

Naturally there would be legal hurdles galore, and companies like Dell, Samsung, Acer, and others would begin dipping their toes into selling Ubuntu-equipped machines again as a means of passive-aggressive resistance to competing with Microsoft's brand of higher quality equipment … but let's ignore that for the time being and just imagine what might be.

Microsoft already has a retail presence, and could easily add their own computers to their stores. In addition to this, HP's existing distribution network would ensure that hardware could quickly be shipped anywhere around the world. Major retailers in every nation also already have deals with Microsoft and would likely invoke greater brand trust than any other.

Sony? Too expensive. Panasonic? Fujitsu? Expensive, and cheap. Samsung? Nice, but not nice enough. Lenovo? Too ugly. Acer, Dell, Gateway? Too cheap. Microsoft? Ah … let me see.

It would be a very risky play, but with the greatest risk comes the greatest reward … or the greatest loss.

HP Envy 13HP manufactures servers, workstations, desktops, notebooks, and tablets. Heck, they still have a phone division, too! All of these areas are spaces where Microsoft has, or wants to have, a strong foothold. They wouldn't need to have as varied a product line as Hewlett Packard or the competition, either. Just two or three models in each category with a simple design, excellent driver support, and a 'Premium Windows Experience'. All of these things would come with a premium price tag, and people demanding the best would be more than happy to pay the price. As for the other manufacturers, they could either offer better models to go head-to-head with the might of Microsoft, or they could stick to their low-end market and feed off the people who think a computer is a computer is a computer.

Windows has been hurting for a long time, as cheap machines running Windows are generally seen — and rightly so — as a cheaper and semi-reliable alternative to the shiny Apple computers, but this doesn't need to be the case. With their own product line, Microsoft could position Windows as something other than the budget OS.

Then They're Not Really Top Selling

Waiting for me in my inbox this morning was yet another promotion from Hewlett Packard, begging me to "spend money to save" … an oxymoron I've yet to fully wrap my head around. While it's true that I've been in the market for a new notebook for quite some time, HP will not be earning a sale on my account as I've grown weary of their tired marketing strategies and sub-par hardware offerings. That said, while scanning through this morning's advertisement, I couldn't help but sigh and pick apart the words hanging off to the side of HP's product.

HP Advertisement | Inventory BlowoutInventory Blowout? So nobody's buying the products and there's a massive surplus of undesired and partially-recyclable computers clogging up the warehouse? HUGE savings on top-selling PCs? Why would a company want to discount their best selling products? Save up to $2,174 USD? Companies don't sell things for a loss, so just how much markup is HP trying to get away with on their functional-but-undesirable notebooks?

Perhaps I've become jaded with HP, having enjoyed two of their incredibly versatile notebooks in the past and seeing nothing comparable to those decade-old systems for under $2,400 USD today.

The Case For RAID

Samsung | 1TB Mobile Hard DriveSamsung is set to release a new mobile hard drive with lots of capacity, but it raises some questions about the long-term viability of this trend. With more people storing more and more data on portable devices, and with the number of people who don't realize the importance of backups before it's too late, should manufacturers take a more active role in protecting people from the inevitable drive failures that happen to us all. This wouldn't come cheap, of course, as it would mean that computers would need to have more hardware and configuration done, but some data loss prevention steps could go a long way towards justifying a better selling price for customers who are familiar with the dangers of losing information.

How could it be done, though?

Windows XP | Low Disk SpaceMany years ago it was common for new computers to ship with their hard drive split into two partitions. The idea was that people would use the main partition (or C drive) for the operating system and application files, while the other drive (usually D) was intended for personal files. Unfortunately, this rarely happened because people didn't really have any idea how they should store information in a computer. Had the manufacturer spent a little more time to point "My Documents" to that second partition people wouldn't have become confused by all the "Low Disk Space" messages they received after just a few months. The cost would have been minimal and customers wouldn't have complained so loudly.

The premise behind this sort of activity was in customers best interest, but it was a half-hearted attempt at helping people protect their data. Until recently, it was common for a computer's operating system to become corrupted. Most of the time this was due to garbage software or viruses infecting the computer and rendering it useless. The fastest way to resolve the situation was to reformat the primary partition and restore all the data. The theory was if people had a copy of their personal files stored on the second partition, restoration of the operating system (almost always Windows) would be much simpler and people wouldn't lose too much important data.

Unfortunately this was rarely ever true.

Few manufacturers still do this but, those that do (Fujitsu, Toshiba, and Acer) never go the extra step of ensuring people's personal data is stored where it should theoretically be placed.

Still, for the sake of friendly marketing promises like "Your data is safe with {Company Name}", manufacturers shouldn't give up on the dream of helping people by providing a safe place to keep their data.

HP dv8075 | Exposed Hard DrivesBelieve it or not, many of the notebooks available on the market for less than $800 have a great deal of wasted space inside of them. Rarely is a machine put together so tightly that nothing more could be wedged into the system. This is done for many reasons but, rather than let this space go to waste, it would be nice to see manufacturers being to rearrange some hardware and use the excess space by shipping devices with two hard drives installed and configured with RAID mirroring.

Why RAID? This would allow a person to continue using their computer even if one hard drive fails. A message will be displayed saying "Oh. My. God. You have a dead hard drive!" and prompting a person to rush out and get a replacement. Once the replacement is installed, the RAID array will rebuild itself and life will carry on. Data loss? Zero.

Naturally, this would not be any alternative to making true backups, nor would it prevent data loss should the system be stolen or destroyed, but it would give people one extra line of defense when their huge hard disk with years of irreplaceable photos, videos, and personal documents decides to die on them.

Wake Me When You Have Something Interesting

Waiting for me this morning was yet another email from HP conveying yet another product that will contribute more to environmental damage than it will to personal efficiency: the Slate 500.

HP Slate 500

In a world that is quickly running out of easily exploitable and obtainable resources, one would think that manufacturers would start being smarter about the products that they design and sell. Unfortunately, this does not seem to be the case. Take the above advertisement for a product that Microsoft's Steve Ballmer touted in January 2010. The HP Slate 500 is a tablet computer running the Professional version of Windows 7 on a very light-weight processor. While the Atom CPU is quite capable under normal circumstances, one of the primary selling features of tablets is the ability to work with applications that are both snappy and finger-friendly. There is no doubt in my mind that Microsoft or Hewlett-Packard could put together a really slick interface to sit on top of Windows 7 to ensure people with tiny, medium, fat, or no fingers could use the device, but where is the compelling reason for people to want this device?

Outside of OneNote, none of the Microsoft Office tools are designed for tablets. PowerPoint could be used to deliver presentations, but I would be loathe to build a presentation on this small computer. The same is said about Excel and Word. How much screen real-estate would be taken up by the on-screen keyboard? Yes, it can be done … but why? A tablet is not a full-sized computer. A tablet is, for lack of a better analogy, like a pad of paper. It's something we touch … something we feel … something that has more of a personal connection.

This is one of the things that I don't understand regarding the rush to put tablet-like devices in the market. It's no longer realistic for companies to throw crap and see what sticks. Instead companies such as HP need to step back and take a better look at what the overall requirements of a tablet are. They already have everything required to make an excellent device that can go toe-to-toe with the competition, but they fail to put all the pieces together. Why is this? Your idea is as good as mine, but it really needs to stop.

Regular people would undoubtedly be happy to wait a year for a quality tablet if they knew it was going to be done right. Despite the rapid adoption of iPads, not everyone is rushing out to buy one of these svelte devices just yet. There is still plenty of time to relax, plan, test, test, test, and test some more to deliver something of incredible quality and durability.

I Can't Believe I Used To Respect You, HP

Words fail to convey just how disappointed I am in Hewlett Packard recently. It's bad enough that most of their "professional" notebooks are nothing more than consumer-grade material with premium prices, but their irrational desire to associate AKB48 with their brand defies all logic.

HP & AKB48

Not cool.

A Painful Kick In the Pants ...

Having registered my iPaq 211 back in 2008, I am on HP's mailing list for critical updates and alerts. While there haven't been too many over the last three years (only two if memory serves), a new one sent this past Tuesday can certainly be a bit of a pain for people who are still running the stock operating system and using CFIO cards … namely service technicians, warehouse staff, insurance adjusters, and the occasional executive.

When the iPaq 210-series PDAs were released, there was a bit of a problem with the Compact Flash drivers that came with Windows Mobile 6. Updates since have resolved the driver issue, but there can still be problems for some who installed a CFIO card before installing the updated drivers. So what's the fix? It's not pretty.

Wipe your PDA and start over.

Yes … according to HP, these are the steps a person must perform to resolve this problem:

HP iPaq 21x Series PDA CFIO Fix

Ouch.

If someone was holding out on replacing their ageing Hewlett Packard PDAs because they didn't want to re-install a bunch of software, tweak settings, and get things back to normal … now is the time to jump ship to a newer device.

All things said, this will not affect a large number of people. I used my PDA daily for over two years and never once ran into trouble with Compact Flash cards, though I will admit that I rarely ever touched the form factor. The one thing I took away from this critical alert, aside from the fact that HP is still supporting these End-Of-Life devices, is that mobile operating systems have come a long way in just a few short years.  If someone loses their iOS or Android device, they can get a new one and have it completely restored in less time than it takes to drink a cup of coffee. Windows Mobile 6? Not so easy (without expensive 3rd party software).

The last time I took a fresh Windows Mobile installation and configured it just the way I liked, it took the better part of five hours.  I can't imagine too many IT people looking forward to doing this for devices that are undoubtedly bruised and beaten with years of wear.

Wonder how many people will actually follow these steps rather than tough it out until upgrade time ….

WebOS Is Coming?

The story of the day seems to be HP's recent unveiling of their upcoming WebOS 2.0-powered devices; one of which happens to be a tablet. This is certainly welcome news as it's the first major release since Hewlett Packard acquired Palm for over a billion dollars last year. The question on everybody's mind, though, is how the HP TouchPad will compete against the myriad of other platforms that will be sold in 2011.

Here is a quick table outlining the technical differences between the HP TouchPad, Apple's iPad, Motorola's Xoom, and RIM's upcoming PlayBook. It should be mentioned, though, that of these four devices, only one is available to buy:

Tabet Comparison

Source: Engadget

Put beside each other these units might seem almost identical, yet they're really quite different. The underlying software that brings these tablets to life is about as different as one could imagine.  Apple's iPad uses an incredibly intuitive (sometimes called "idiot proof") interface that gets out of the way as soon as an application is launched.  Motorola's Xoom tablet is running the latest version of Google's Android system, which will provide enormous benefits to power-users who demand maximum customization of their electronics and freedom to install whatever they choose. RIM's PlayBook is running QNX, an operating system they acquired recently which has been gaining some positive reviews and has the added bonus of running Android applications.

And this leads us to HP's TouchPad … a name that has elements of two wildly successful Apple products, running WebOS.

WebOS has remained something of a mystery for me. Not because it's unavailable outside of North America and Western Europe … but because it's just so darned attractive, yet unknown outside of a very small percentage of the population. There have been a number of people I've spoken to who would choose a phone or tablet running WebOS over Android due to it's simplicity, superior notification system, and overall attractiveness. If HP can successfully position their tablet and sell it for a reasonable price, they might just give the competition a run for it's money with the typical consumer who doesn't want something from Apple, or a system as complex as Android. One question that I have regarding WebOS, though, is it's ability to handle multiple languages.

I wrote a few days ago about #5 I Love iOS" href="https://matigo.ca/2011/02/07/reason-5-on-why-i-love-ios-languages/" target="_self">one of the many reasons I loved using iOS, and this feature must be available in every future operating system that I use. Gone are the days of installing separate language packs, fiddling with IMEs, and making concessions just so that a computer can display something correctly.  If a 21st century computer is still unable to easily display information in any of the world's major languages, then I'm not interested. WebOS has so far been limited for sale in English, French, German, and Spanish speaking nations … which could leave HPs dreams of having a global reach dashed if not corrected. None of Apple's products have this problem, nor Android.

Microsoft's Pickle

A thought that's been working its way around my brain recently is how Microsoft is going to compete in the tablet space.  There have been a few Windows-powered tablets on the market for over a decade, yet none of them have made a dent in the space. This is mainly because an operating system designed to be used with a keyboard and mouse cannot possibly compete with one designed for fingers. Mice can be used for precision, whereas our phalanges are used for much less accurately. Steve Ballmer has said that the next version of Windows will be better designed for tablets, but this won't be ready for at least another two years. By then Apple will have had an iPad out for four years, Android for three, and both HP and RIM will be working on their third or fourth major update of their respective operating systems. Where can Microsoft fit in here?

The problem is, they can't. HP knows this, which is why they spent 1.2-billion dollars last year to get their hands on WebOS. In order for HP to succeed in the tablet space they need to get into the corporate world before Apple dominates the market, and before someone figures out how to make Android the perfect enterprise companion. RIM might even have a leg up on everyone in this area due to the pervasiveness of their BlackBerry phones in business, but it's yet to be seen.

So there we have it … the next six months will see four different systems competing for the hearts, minds, and wallets of the market, not one of these options coming from Microsoft. And, though the hardware for these will be largely similar, it's the software that will make or break the countless billions invested in these technologies. Who will win? It's hard to say at this point with only one product for sale on the market (and due to be updated in the coming months), but one thing is certain: it's going to be an interesting year in this space.